The Rootstock team rounded out its 2021 season this past weekend, when Jim, Karyn, and I (Abby) traveled to northeastern Vermont for the GMARA Hard Fall. It's a gorgeous part of the country and an outdoor playground that deserves a fantastic race. This was the first 24-hour race hosted by GMARA, and as far as I know the first bigger race RD Tom Martin has directed. Though there were some wrinkles to work out, the organization was wonderful, the bones of the course were awesome, and Tom has a great eye for creative strategy and route decisions. The first 24-hour race Brent and I directed was a 36-48 hour course, and knowing that Tom is a good navigator who had this amazing area to work with, I'd been expecting something big and bold. That's what he delivered. I'll be eager to take part in the next one.
We left Philly mid-morning Friday and had an uncharacteristically traffic-less drive up to Lebanon, New Hampshire, where we'd planned to have dinner with Alyssa and Matt on Team VERT and camp in their driveway. About 45 minutes into the drive, I realized that I'd forgotten to pack the middle seat for the canoe. We contemplated reversing course, but decided to pick up a milk crate along the way instead. We got to their house around 4pm and spent an hour sorting gear and repacking before we realized that the car keys had disappeared. Commence 2.5 hours of unpacking and repacking every single bag in the car and calling Subaru Roadside Assistance for help before Karyn found the keys by headlight in a patch of grass none of us remembered walking over.
That coincided with VERT returning home from dinner with takeout for us, so we ate quickly and were in the iKamper before 9pm. Got a solid night of pre-race sleep and pulled out of their driveway for what should have been a quick hour up to the race. Except the Dunkin Donuts nearby was understaffed, so we were trapped in the drive-thru line for 45 minutes for three bagels and cream cheese and ended up pulling into check-in ten minutes after they started giving out maps. At least DD had a milk crate for us!
We grabbed our maps and found a table to begin sorting. It was apparent quickly that it was a giant course, but we had no time or distance estimates, so we planned our route as we normally would and figured we would adapt as needed along the way.
LEG 1 - Lake Willoughby Paddle
The bus departed at 9am and we had a quick ride up to Lake Willoughby for the start. Two minutes before the clock began, Tom announced that he expected that top teams would need about two hours more than they had to clear everything. We didn't have any time to process that before we started a whitecapped 8km paddle across the lake.
We handled the conditions well enough, chasing Strong Machine for the first half and then leading for the second. NH Trail Vets hugged in close behind us for most of it. Mason told Jim that any time they moved off our tail, they were getting swamped with water. We learned later that they were in good company: several boats either capsized or filled, leaving carnage on the water. A number of teams stopped to offer assistance, including our friends on Electric Mayhem and Fire Breathing Rubber Ducky Fun Machine. We heard the stories from Electric Mayhem on the way home. It sounds like it could have been a pretty dangerous situation, but luckily everyone came out unscathed and were able to continue racing.
LEG 2 - Trek
This section included a whole bunch of checkpoints, each worth somewhere between 25 and 100 points. Every 100 points was 1CP, and teams would be considered clearing if they got 900 of the 1100 points out there. We had talked about a few different routes ahead of time that were all predicated upon clearing that 900 number. I questioned that approach when we were in the boats and suggested a cluster to skip, but in the commotion on the water, we didn't really get a chance to think it through, and I didn't bring it up again when we transitioned - definitely my mistake in not speaking up.
We started through our planned route and were moving well, but the woods were thick and the elevation was substantial, and it became clear quickly that we would need to adapt. The problem was that our original course committed us to a route that was pretty inefficient if we were leaving things out there. In the end, we left with 500 points/5 CPs and headed out on bike for a "mystery section."
LEG 3 - Corn Maze
Alyssa had texted me earlier in the week to point out that one of the event sponsors was a dogsledding company, leaving us wondering whether the mystery section would be some sort of sledding challenge, but it turned out to be a big community corn maze! (We never did find out what was up with the dogsleds...). We got there around 3:30pm, and there were still a lot of families roaming through because the race entry didn't officially open until 4pm. So, we slowed to a walk and did our best not to disturb the paying customers. The section included two loops on bike and one on foot, all set up as a memory-o. The first point was a bit of mystery - "go south and trust us that you'll find it" - but it worked out okay. Strong Machine was finishing as we arrived, and Cliff told us that they'd never laughed so hard on a race course as they did in that section. We had a few moments ourselves, but it sounded like they may have had more fun :)
LEG 4 - Kingdom Trails
When Brent and I rode the Kingdom Trails this summer, it was about the most fun I'd ever had on a bike. So when the race sent us the KT waiver last week, I was SO excited for the chance to return. But I confess, it wasn't my favorite section. Between the bulky packs (lots of mandatory layers - all of which we ended up using by the end of the race), the micro-nav through the trails, and the way the course was laid out, we never quite got into a groove and found the flow that I had enjoyed so much in August. Some of the CPs were great; others left us questioning our life choices (the pine tree on the edge of the marsh... that was surrounded by pine trees; the "nasty thicket" where the circle on the map was entirely comprised of nasty thicket; the one that required us to hike our bikes up a 600-foot climb on a trail that didn't allow mountain bikes...). By 9:00pm - we couldn't believe we'd only been racing for eleven hours by that point - we once again found ourselves needing to leave behind points, creating a less-than-ideal route. Our section ended with three lengthy out-and-backs and the aforementioned 600-foot climb up the red trail. We passed Strong Machine, who were coming down from the top sans bikes - clearly a more optimal route - and learned that they had crushed the section. We were a little bit deflated but continued on and made relatively quick work of the descent into the overnight trek.
LEG 5 - Off-trail Trek
You needed to arrive on this leg by 2am to go out, and there was a suggested 3:30am cutoff to depart. I don't recall what time we got there, but we knew in advance that there was no way we'd be able to cover 8+ kms of entirely off-trail travel in the time we had. This was the first section where we made good decisions ahead of time about what to skip, and we set ourselves up for a solid westerly loop that would offer us (I believe) 7 CPs.
I had cooked myself a bit on the earlier hike-a-bike, and after spending half the race eating voraciously - couldn't seem to get enough calories in - my stomach turned on me a bit. I poured a coke into my bike bottle and nursed that and a bag of animal crackers over the next couple hours to get myself out of the hole. It never impacted my race or the team, but I could tell I was right on the edge.
We had been looking forward to this section from the start - we typically enjoy overnight footwork, especially when it requires bushwhacking and challenging nav - and overall the section went well. Jim's navigation was solid throughout the race, and he and I had been working the maps well together all day, and that continued here as well. We did get tripped up on one CP - a three-meter boulder - after taking a line off the wrong creek. We ran into Strong Machine there again and all searched together for a little while before we decided it was misplotted and continued on. They caught up to us again a few minutes later and Cliff said, "you're going to hate yourselves. You were twenty feet from the point." Worse yet, Karyn had literally been standing on the boulder... twice... but she left so we could re-attack.
By that time we assumed Strong Machine had several CPs on us, but nothing we could do but continue executing our race. We finished our loop - not before coming face-to-face with a porcupine! - and transitioned back to bike for a short ride to the Passumpsic River.
LEG 6 - Bike
This should have been a short and mindless ride, except we decided to get cute and shave a couple kilometers from the expected route, and we bit ourselves in the butt. After retracing our ride out of the Kingdom Trails, we got to a road intersection. The intended route would have us turn left for about 6 kilometers of rollers to the TA. But if we stayed straight, there was a road about 2 kilometers downhill that looked like it should connect to main route. After flying down, we spent 15+ minutes puttering around (possibly in people's backyards... with a very large skunk watching us), before giving up, dejectedly climbing back up the 2km, and then adding the 6km we should have just done from the beginning. We looked on google maps and the tracking map later, and the street view seems to indicate that the road connected, but on the satellite it shows up as a nondescript trail up and over a cliff... I struggled to stay awake over the last fifteen minutes and ultimately resorted to reciting kids' books (which came easier than songs) to avoid falling off the side of the road.
LEG 7/8 - Passumpsic River Paddle + Ride to Finish
The race ended with a paddle/trek down the Passumpsic and a few minutes of road riding to the finish. You had to be on the water by 5:30am in order to begin the section, presumably because the RDs expected that teams would need 4.5 hours to complete the paddle + ride, without getting any CPs along the way.
We got on the river around 5:25am, and I immediately came alive again. I had a blast negotiating the shallow, twisty river from the front of the boat. When Jim and Karyn got sleepy in the pre-dawn fog, we sang show tunes and watched a beaver swimming alongside our canoe. Given the time crunch, we decided to leave the two clusters of foot CPs, focusing on moving efficiently and nabbing the two points on the water.
But when we hit the third portage, we saw all of our bikes waiting for us. It turned out that they decided to cut the paddle short and have teams bike the last 9km to the TA and continue onto the finish. I'm sure most teams were relieved to be off the water, and it was probably the right decision for the race as a whole, given how the day had played out, but we were pretty frustrated by the change, in that we'd made decisions based on the time cutoffs we'd been given at the start of the race. We chatted briefly with the RDs, who recognized the consequences of the decision for a select number of teams, and then hopped on our bikes to try to clear the last three foot points from the bike.
With renewed urgency, we dropped our bikes and took off, running for the three points in our bike shoes. We criss-crossed with VERT at the top of the climb. They had approached the loop in reverse so that was their last point. From there, we grabbed the last two points and then jumped on our bikes for the last 5km back.
We had plenty of time to get there so weren't planning on gunning, but then we passed Strong Machine and Cliff yelled, "thanks for making us race!" That lit a bit of a fire, and we roared through the final couple kilometers into St. Johnsbury School and the finish. Strong Machine was 2-3 minutes behind us. We guessed by then it was just a moral victory, but still a fun sprint to the finish.
In the end, our delayed decision-making was our undoing. We finished one point behind VERT, who took second place, and two points behind Strong Machine, who pulled off the win. Huge congrats to both those teams for a strong and smart race. We loved sharing the podium with close friends.
This was the last event of a very up-and-down season of racing for me. I have lots of thoughts as I catch my breath and start to think about 2022, but the biggest takeaway is a need to figure how to pare down some of the busy in my life so that I can actually enjoy all of the things that stay a little bit more.